Pandemic could spark shift to suburban offices, Ottawa workplace expert says

Ottawa downtown

The COVID-19 pandemic could trigger a shift toward smaller, suburban office spaces as more people seek to work in less crowded settings closer to home, a local expert on workplace management says.

“What employees are looking for is flexibility,” Thatcher Workplace Consulting president Meredith Thatcher said Thursday night during an online discussion hosted by the Ottawa chapter of Financial Executives International Canada. 

The pandemic has forced employers to rethink their concept of the workplace as meetings have shifted to video-conferencing platforms such as Zoom and traditional face-to-face brainstorming sessions have been replaced by remote meetings, Thatcher noted.

The most successful companies have adapted to the new reality of remote work, she added, coming up with creative new ways of bringing employees together via new technology. 

'Hub-and-spoke' model

Office life isn’t for everyone, Thatcher said. Employees should give their staff the freedom to work wherever they’re most productive, whether it’s their living rooms, a co-working space or even a branch location that doesn’t require them to commute all the way downtown, she explained.

“Let’s continue some of that experimentation,” Thatcher said, suggesting a “hub-and-spoke” model with satellite offices in places such as Orléans and Barrhaven could foster a more creative culture by allowing different groups of employees who don’t normally associate at work to come together and exchange new ideas.

“It all depends on what's important to you,” she said, noting there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to reimagining work life in a post-COVID world. “I don’t care if I ever have an office again.”

Commercial real estate broker Alan Doak, the evening’s other main panellist, said the hub-and-spoke idea is becoming a hot topic of discussion as tenants try to figure out new ways to safely integrate employees back into the workplace. 

But he said that while there’s a lot of talk about the concept, it isn’t a viable option for many employers.

“Running satellite offices is not a simple thing to do,” explained Doak, a principal at Proveras Commercial Realty. Even if it did allow employers to reduce their footprints in pricey downtown office towers, he said, they would need to hire extra staff to run the outlying locations and incur new leasing and upkeep expenses at those spaces.

“I’m not certain that the return on that investment is necessarily there,” he said.

Although Ottawa’s office vacancy rate rose near a full percentage point in the third quarter as the pandemic continued to batter the local economy, Doak said he believes the commercial real estate industry will weather the storm.

“Long term, I think we’re going to do just fine,” he said.